MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - An EF3 tornado striking a densely populated suburb of Birmingham late in the evening during the heart of winter may seem odd, rare, unusual, and unexpected.
Unfortunately it’s not.
The tornado that tore through Fultondale and Center Point is an example of something that Alabama has become familiar with over the last few decades -- rising tornado numbers no matter the time of day, week, month, or year.
Since 1990, tornado activity across the state has increased overall. Since 2000, we see an average of 60 tornadoes in a given calendar year. Compare that to just 39 tornadoes when looking at the average dating back to 1970!
In fact, each of the top 10 years for total tornadoes in Alabama has come since 2000!
The unforgettable year of 2011 leads the way with a ridiculous 145 tornadoes hitting the state.
And many of our tornadoes do in fact occur while it’s dark outside, including Monday’s Fultondale tornado.
While a majority of Alabama’s twisters strike between noon and 7 pm, more than 30% of all tornadoes to hit the state over the last 70 years have come while it’s dark! That includes many EF2s, EF3s and even a few intense EF4 tornadoes.
Despite what you may believe or have read somewhere on the Internet, many of Alabama’s tornadoes do occur during the winter months.
Alabama is actually right in the center of the “hot zone” for tornadoes -- oftentimes referred to as Dixie Alley -- during the late fall, winter and early spring months.
While not the most active months of the year...February, December and January actually rank as the 5th, 6th and 7th most active months respectively for tornadic activity in Alabama since 1950. The numbers don’t measure up to those of March, April, May, and November, but they are still significant.
But what about trying to determine where in the state tornadoes strike the most?
There are most definitely hot spots for tornado activity across Alabama. When you look at the map above depicting total tornadoes by county since 1950, a few things stand out...
- The northern half of the state sees substantially more tornadoes than the southern half of the state outside of Baldwin and Mobile counties
- Speaking of Baldwin and Mobile counties...those numbers are so high to due numerous weaker tornadoes spawned by tropical systems
- Highly populated counties have higher numbers because tornadoes are seen and reported much more often due to more people living there
- Counties in West Alabama may have lower tornado counts due to lower populations and a lack of reliable radar coverage
While it’s expected for the more densely populated counties to have high tornado counts, it’s obvious there are corridors that are “hotter” than the rest of the state. Those include Jefferson County and adjacent counties such as Tuscaloosa, Walker, Fayette, and Blount.
Another hot spot is up in northern Alabama; namely Cullman, Limestone, Madison, Marshall, Morgan, Jackson, and DeKalb.
These hot spots to our north are likely due to a couple of factors. They include at least some role played by elevation changes up there, less of an impact from the Gulf of Mexico (proximity to the Gulf may temper tornado events in our area), and a more ideal environment for tornadogenesis based on low pressure tracks.
Locally, the counties with the most people have the highest tornado numbers. As mentioned above, that’s not surprising. For what it’s worth, Montgomery County leads the way in our region with 50 tornadoes over the 70-year span from 1950 to 2019.